Review: ‘Once’ at The Academy of Music in Philadelphia

Once is not your usual Broadway musical. From the moment you enter the theater, the inventive staging immediately breaks through the proverbial fourth wall, as you are physically drawn into the performance, welcomed on stage to buy an actual drink, and soon find yourself among the cast of actors/musicians jamming to a few spirited Irish folk songs. Back in your seat as the story begins to unfold, it doesn’t take long for you to connect with the emotions, too, as you quickly come to care about the likeable characters, singing and playing their hearts out in a Dublin bar, brought together through music, following their dreams, thinking about what once was and what might have been, with someone they once knew.

Based on John Carney’s low-budget Irish hit film of 2007, with music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, playwright Enda Walsh’s stage adaptation, with original direction by John Tiffany, is at once personal and universal, joyous and anguished, uplifting and bittersweet–just like real life. And the unnamed Guy and Girl—he, an aspiring but disheartened Irish singer-songwriter; she, a lively and irresistible classically trained Czech pianist relocated to Dublin—are the archetypal star-crossed lovers who become fast friends and soulmates, who together experience euphoria and heartbreak, who provide support and understanding when they both need it the most, who are there for each other at the crossroads of their lives, and who will always hold a special place for one another in their hearts and memories.

Sound sentimental? It is, but it’s also charming and funny and relatable and entertaining, a poignant tale that will make you laugh with its witty, combative, and flirtatious interplay, while tugging at your heartstrings with evocative music and touching performances.\

Sam Cieri and Mackenzie Lesser-Roy perform "Falling Slowly." (© David Gordon) and Theatermania.
Sam Cieri and Mackenzie Lesser-Roy perform “Falling Slowly.”
(© David Gordon) and Theatermania.

The current touring production features two thoroughly captivating lead actors–Sam Cieri as the Guy and Mackenzie Lesser-Roy as the Girl—who masterfully deliver the Irish and Czech accents, powerful vocals, (including The 2007 Oscar winning “Falling Slowly,” – all while accompanying themselves on guitar and piano) romantic chemistry, and musical harmony of the young would-be/could-be couple, and an accomplished ensemble that portrays their Irish and Czech family and friends (Bristol Pomeroy is especially affecting as Guy’s Da), singing, dancing, and playing an assortment of traditional wind, string, and percussion instruments (original music supervision and orchestrations by Martin Lowe) with engaging vitality.

Bob Crowley’s set and costumes capture the look and feel of an earthy Dublin pub and its working-class denizens, and warm golden lighting by Natasha Katz enhances the intimacy of the tale and its changing locales (cleverly conjured within the bar interior by the characters’ telling comments and the shifting of a few simple props). The appealing naturalism of the artistic design is at times disrupted by stylized sequences of trendy interpretive movement (Steven Hoggett) that distract from the honest expression of feelings that imbues the show with humanity. But the heartfelt mood, conflicting emotions over what’s “unfinished” and what’s “unstarted,” and psychological insight into “the complicated business of love” are elevated by the profound appreciation for the unifying impact and pride in historic Irish culture and song, as the cast, and couple, make romantic, revealing, and hauntingly beautiful music together.

Running Time: Two and a half hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

Once plays through Sunday, January 17, 2016 and is presented by Broadway Philadelphia, performing at the Academy of Music – Broad and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 731-3333, or purchase them online.

LINK:
Once at The Kennedy Center by Gina Jun.